The Wrestling of Israel

August 22, 2016

by Iain Duguid

In the midst of his struggle with God, Jacob received a new name, Israel, which marked a radical change in his nature. Unlike Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah, his new name is not a variant and an extension of what has gone before but rather a total transformation. His lifelong attempt to gain the promised blessing by ingenuity and striving rather than by grace had now to be abandoned. But perhaps that sanctifying transformation is partial in all of us in this life, so also was Jacob’s name change. Unlike Abraham and Sarah, who, once given their new names, never reverted to their old ones, Jacob was from now on Jacob and Israel. The biblical text alternates between the two designations for the patriarch not becauses it comes to us from two different sources, as scholars have sometimes argued, but because Jacob/Israel has two warring natures. In the language of Martin Luther, he is simul justus et peccator—at the same time justified and a sinner. God’s work is established in principle in his life, as the new name Israel clearly declares, but it would take a lifetime for that principle to work itself out in fullness. As long as he lived on earth, part of him would still be Jacob.

So too we are all new creations who still live life in the flesh. There is a tension at the center of our beings as Christians. On the one hand, God has given us rebirth by his Spirit—a heart of flesh to replace the heart of stone that we have before. He gives us desires for holiness that we never experienced before we became Christians and enables us to bear the fruits of the Spirit to replace our old barrenness. On the other hand, we make only “small beginnings” on the road to holiness in this life, as the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us (Q&A 114). We will continue to wrestle against our flesh every step of our earthly journey, repeatedly crying out, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” and looking forward to the answer, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:24–25).

Jacob would forever bear on his body the marks of this painful yet grace-filled encounter with God in which to survive and cling was to triumph.

The new name, Israel, was acquired by Jacob not through success or shrewdness but through enduring the assault of God. It is grace, to be sure, but not the kind of grace we thought that we knew or wanted. Meeting God in this instance did not lead to peace and healing for Jacob but to an enduring, painful crippling. Jacob would forever bear on his body the marks of this painful yet grace-filled encounter with God in which to survive and cling was to triumph. Thereafter his descendants memorialized Jacob’s encounter by not eating the meat attached to the socket of the hip (Gen. 32:32).

Perhaps you too are in the middle of wrestling with the painfulness of the grace of God in your life. The things that most clearly show you your own emptiness and need of a Savior are the things in your life that seem the most ugly and broken to you. This is how God sometimes works: taking painful, crippling, and disfiguring wounds and turning them into the very place in which you receive the blessing of learning simply to cling to him, knowing that there is nothing else you can do.

The True Israel

In the midst of these painful but faithful wounds how can we miss the connection to the cross? There God the Son endured the agonizing and terrifying assault of God the Father so that grace and blessing might flow out to his people. Having completed his wrestling with man throughout his earthly life, Jesus Christ wrestled with God on our behalf. He wrestled with the difficult and painful will of God in the garden, crying out, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39). He wrestled with the holy and fearsome wrath of God on the cross, in that awful moment when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). The outcome of his wrestling was not merely that he was crippled in the hip; he was wounded and bruised for us, flogged and crucified and burdened with the whole weight of our transgressions. But in the midst of that painful trial, Jesus clung to God and would not let him go unless he received a blessing—not a blessing for himself but a blessing for us, his people. Through his faithful clinging to the Father, he prevailed over sin and death, and as a result he has been given the name above every name.

Jesus is thus the true Israel, with no Jacob mixed in. He is the one who has in fullness struggled with God and struggled with men and has overcome. We in turn are given a new name and become part of the Israel of God as we are united to Christ (Gal. 6:16). As we do so, we are called to participate in his struggles and suffering as well as in his victory. Jesus struggled on the cross not so that you and I might never have to struggle but so that our struggles might be fruitful, making us more like him. That is why Paul prays

that [he] may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible [he] may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Phil. 3:10–11)

His strength is not empowered by your strength; rather, it is made perfect in your weakness.

It is in our struggles and suffering that we are taught to abandon our self-dependence and look to the cross, clinging to God alone for blessing. When you fear God, you will have nothing else to fear. Cling to him with all your strength, and you will find that he will not let you go. Even when you feel too weak to cling to him and too fearful to hold on to him for a second longer, you will still find that his strong arms encircle you in his love and that he will not let you go. His strength is not empowered by your strength; rather, it is made perfect in your weakness.

What is more, we too are regularly called to memorialize this great battle in our eating, whenever we gather at the Lord’s Table. There I remember Christ’s wrestling on the cross. There I am to remember the tearing apart of his body for me. There I recall the shedding of his blood for my transgressions. There I cling to God and ask him to fulfill his promises to us and in us. There at the Table, our souls are fed with God’s assurance that no matter what Esaus with their armies may face us in this life, the love of God has laid hold of us for blessing in Christ and will not let us go.

This piece is adapted from Iain Duguid, Living in the Grip of Relentless Grace: The Gospel in the Lives of Isaac and Jacob. The Gospel in the Old Testament Series. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2015), 111–14. Used with permission of the publisher.

Read More On jacob, Old Testament, suffering

Iain Duguid

Dr. Duguid (PhD, Cambridge) is professor of Old Testament at WTS.

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